Skip to main content

Imagine going to vote this November, and making your way to your local polling station to engage in that most sacred of duties and privileges. Voting is the foundation of our democracy, it is the primary act that separates our form of governance from a kingship or dictatorship. So imagine instead of having your vote accepted and counted, you are arrested, taken into custody, tried in a kangaroo court, and fined.

That’s what happened to suffragist Susan B. Anthony when she tried to vote for president in 1872. She was subsequently arrested and tried by the patriarchy of the times. Her case, The United States vs. Susan B. Anthony, was picked in 2013 as one of "10 Trials that Changed the World" by the American Bar Association.

In the latter half of the 19th century a number of courageous women fought for their human rights, especially the right to vote as they saw that as the foundation for all other rights. The lioness of them all was Susan B. Anthony.

Anthony was like an itinerant preacher traveling from town to town, promoting woman’s rights wherever she could find an audience. A year before her arrest, she had traveled on the new transcontinental railroad to California, lecturing at major towns along the way. In impassioned speeches she questioned why it should be a crime for women to vote. She was noted for her skills as an organizer, lobbyist, publicist and author, publishing a weekly newspaper which was read from San Francisco to France. She brought the skills and drive of a political agitator to her work, and her indomitable spirit made her one of the best-known women in the country.

This was during a time when the nation could be described as a kind of Taliban America. Not only were women not allowed to vote or to hold political office, but they also couldn’t easily own property, obtain a higher education, had few employment opportunities, and it was still frowned upon that women would dare to speak in public.

But Anthony and her suffragist cohorts were not deterred. They relentlessly looked for ways to push the sexist status quo the next step toward greater equality. The same fervor for equality that had motivated anti-slavery activism also spurred a growing movement for women’s rights, which resulted in the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, formed by Anthony and other leaders.

So when the election of 1872 approached, with tepid women’s rights supporter President Ulysses Grant running for reelection on the Republican Party ticket, Anthony and her fellow conspirators hatched a plan to push on the pressure points of the system. Oh, were they clever. This was civil disobedience at its finest.

“Give us our own constitutional amendment, thank you”

The National Woman Suffrage Association previously had tried to get explicit references to the voting rights of women added to the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, which were passed, along with the 13th amendment, as part of the effort to ban slavery and bestow citizenship and voting rights to ex-slaves. The 14th amendment, which had gone into effect in 1868, read, in part:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens…No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The 15th amendment in 1870 explicitly forbade the denial of the right to vote based on race, but not on gender. Spurred on by the horrors of slavery and the barbarity of the just-concluded civil war, the white male guardians of the day believed that gender must be subordinated to race in their considerations.

Initially, Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women leaders had opposed the 15th amendment unless they could get a promise for a 16th amendment granting women the right to vote. When that didn’t work, Anthony and her fellow suffragists adopted a new strategy: they would test the meaning of those amendments, and how the amendments might be interpreted to apply to the rights of women.

They believed that the 14th Amendment, which now defined U.S. citizenship, protected a woman’s right to vote. The women reasoned that the rights of U.S. citizenship, or, in constitutional language, “the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States,” included the right to vote. If the 14th Amendment’s definition of U.S. citizenship included women, and the states were barred from depriving U.S. citizens of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, it followed that states could not exclude women from voting.

At least, that was their legal interpretation. Which virtually no one in a position of power shared, at least not initially. So Anthony and other women around the country set about trying to establish, through test cases in the federal courts, that the amendments had redefined citizenship and rights in a way that women were protected by the federal government in their right to vote. Women suffragists sought to validate their interpretation either through a declaratory act of Congress that would enforce their interpretation of the Amendments, or through a favorable decision in federal courts. This was a novel legal and activist strategy.

Election day disobedience

So on November 1, 1872, a few days before the presidential election, Anthony walked with her three sisters to a voter registration office in a nearby barber shop in their hometown of Rochester, NY, and demanded to be registered. Anthony quoted the 14th Amendment to the election inspectors to justify their demand, and threatened to sue the inspectors personally if they refused. Anthony expected to be denied registration, since woman in other parts of the US had been halted in their attempts. But in the ensuing confusion, and after Anthony and her sisters took oaths of legal responsibility, the poll inspectors allowed them to complete the voter registration process.

Being a whiz of a skilled publicist, Anthony immediately headed to a newspaper office to tell a reporter what had just happened. News of their registration appeared in the afternoon newspapers, with some locals calling for the arrest of the inspectors who had registered the women. Other women in Rochester heard the news and began to register, bringing the total registered almost to fifty. A small feminist rebellion was breaking loose, courtesy of these unruly Ladies.

On Election Day, November 5, 1872, in the first district of the Eighth Ward of Rochester, New York, Anthony and 14 other women from her ward showed up to vote. They were spoiling for trouble.

Anthony and the others did not expect that they would actually be allowed to vote, but her success at registering raised the hope that lightning might strike twice. When their right to vote was challenged by an election inspector, the women agreed to take an oath stating that they were qualified to vote. The election inspectors were now in a difficult position. They were at risk of violating state law if they turned the women away because state law did not give them the authority to refuse the ballot to anyone who took the required oath. Federal law, however, made it illegal to receive the ballot of an ineligible voter, so the inspectors now also were in the hot seat. The inspectors, either in their confusion or in solidarity, decided to allow the women to vote.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

So Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time in her life. Indeed, all 14 of the women were allowed to vote for president as well as for members of Congress. After she voted, Anthony wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, excitedly reporting, "Well I have been & gone & done it!!—positively voted the Republican ticket!"

Even for Anthony, the veteran agitator, these were all rather unanticipated developments, according to Professor Ann D. Gordon, a historian of the women's movement and editor of the six-volume Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Sometimes history moves forward that way, by accident. But it only happens if people are bold enough to take a risk.

Nine days after the election, U.S. Commissioner William Storrs, an officer of the federal courts, issued warrants for the arrest of Anthony and the fourteen other women who voted in Rochester. The women were charged with voting for members of the U.S. House of Representatives “without having a lawful right to vote,” in violation of section 19 of the Enforcement Act of 1870. Three days later, on November 18, 1872, a deputy federal marshal called on Anthony, and asked her to accompany him to police headquarters to see the commissioner. “What for?’ she asked. ‘To arrest you,’ he said. ‘Is that the way you arrest men?’ ‘No.’ Anthony then demanded that she should be arrested properly, and held out her wrists to be handcuffed. The officer declined, saying he did not think that would be necessary. But he took her into custody.

All of the arrested women were held to $500 bail, and everyone posted bail except Anthony, who refused. So the authorities authorized the U.S. marshal to place her in the Albany County jail. But she was never actually held there.

The government officials, who viewed all of this as a nuisance, had no idea of the ruckus they were in for. Anthony now mobilized all of her talents as an agitator and clever polemicist for use as a criminal defendant. She turned this episode into an enormous opportunity to generate publicity for the suffrage movement.

She cleverly prepared for her trial by lecturing in every village and town of Monroe County from which jurors would be chosen, asking and answering the question, “Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” When the government moved her trial to another county, she repeated the effort. She played to the newspapers and stirred the pot of controversy and sensation. Once her trial began, newspapers across the country published daily reports. Editorials were written alternately praising or lambasting her and the suffragists.

In some places, Susan B. Anthony was hung in effigy and her likeness dragged through the streets. In other quarters, the popularity of the well-known Anthony was evident in favorable cartoons drawn by political cartoonists. One newspaper snidely opined that the wave of women voters “goes to show the progress of female lawlessness instead of the progress of the principle of female suffrage….[T]he efforts of Susan B. Anthony & Co. to unsex themselves and vote as men will be, so far as they are successful, both criminal and ridiculous.”

— Caricature of Susan B. Anthony in the Daily Graphic just before her trial

— Caricature of Susan B. Anthony in the Daily Graphic just before her trial

America on trial, not Susan B. Anthony

The trial became known as The United States vs. Susan B. Anthony, but Anthony turned the US into the defendant, instead of herself. The event was a great legal match, showcasing the defiant Anthony versus an exasperated federal judge, and pitting accomplished lawyers against each other. Throughout the trial, in her tireless effort to win over the court of public opinion, Anthony lectured to audiences, quoting the 14th amendment’s clauses that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens” and “No State shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens,” arguing that:

“The only question left to be settled now, is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no State has a right to make any new law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities."

She also drew attention to the inconsistent way that gendered words were used in the law. She pointed out that the New York tax laws referred only to "he", "him" and "his", yet taxes were collected from women. The federal Enforcement Act of 1870, which she was accused of violating, similarly used male pronouns only. She published pamphlets about the trial and distributed thousands of copies, some of which she mailed to newspaper editors in several states with requests to reprint them.

By June 1873, when the federal trial for The United States vs. Susan B. Anthony began, readers of newspapers everywhere understood that this was a battle over the civil rights claims of woman suffragists. The lawyers’ arguments and the rulings of Justice Ward Hunt filled several columns of the daily papers. Sitting in the audience was former president Millard Fillmore and other public notables.

Anthony requested to testify on her own behalf, but Judge Hunt silenced her. In a controversial moment, when it looked like the jury was sympathetic, the biased, imperious judge took the law into his own hands — shockingly, he actually directed the jury to deliver a guilty verdict! That autocratic move arguably was in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the accused the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.

On the closing day of the trial, the judge finally asked Anthony if she had anything to say. She responded with "the most famous speech in the history of the agitation for woman suffrage", according to Professor Ann Gordon. Repeatedly ignoring the judge's order to stop talking and sit down, Anthony protested what she called "this high-handed outrage upon my citizen's rights", saying "you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.” She declared that even if the judge had allowed the jury to discuss the case, she still would have been denied her right to a trial by a jury of her peers because women were not allowed to be jurors. For women to get their right to a voice in government, she said, they must "take it; as I have taken mine, and mean to take it at every possible opportunity."

When Justice Hunt sentenced Anthony to pay a fine of $100, she responded, "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty” and she never did. Instead, Judge Hunt's biased instructions to the jury created a controversy within the legal community that lasted for years. In 1895, as a consequence, the Supreme Court ruled that a federal judge could not direct a jury to return a guilty verdict in a criminal trial. The New York Sun called for Hunt's impeachment, editorializing that he had overthrown civil liberties. In later years, the legal community would credit Anthony and her trial in establishing new awareness and subsequent precedent for protecting a defendant's rights in jury trials.

Susan B. Anthony was one stubborn woman. A woman with an attitude, as they say. She was a brilliant provocateur for the cause of equal rights, an Abbie Hoffman in a dress. Women of course would not gain the right to vote for nearly another half-century. But this trial helped make women’s suffrage a national issue. It was a major step in the transition of the women’s rights movement toward a focus on the right to vote.

Susan B. Anthony would not live to see the 19th amendment pass in 1920, legalizing women’s right to vote. She passed 14 years earlier, and her dying words were “Failure is impossible.” Her entire adult life was a dedication to the human spirit, and proof that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. She was one of those brilliant, indomitable characters that appear every now and then in history like a fabulous comet streaking across the night sky, and who, by their words and deeds, inspire millions and move progress forward.

Somebody should make a movie about this trial and these events. This has the drama of Lincoln written all over it. Mr. Spielberg, are you listening?

Crossposted from DemocracySOS